How Do I Develop Real Relationships with Foundations?

November 5, 2014

Dear Rich,

I keep hearing that we should develop a personal relationship with foundation staff, but whenever I call, I get brushed off with instructions to “read the guidelines.” Our foundation funding is dropping, and as more and more foundations move to online submissions, how does our organization get a foot in the door? Help!

This is always a hassle for the “little guys” and the big guys never seem to have this problem because they are well connected. The foundations that like to keep grantseekers at arm’s length hire gatekeepers and sometimes there are gatekeepers to the gatekeepers. It is very frustrating. I have three strategies that I have used over the years that depending on your level of “chutzpah” you should try. This strategies are designed to get through to the actual program person at the foundation and not to be stymied by their shields and protectors.

  • The first strategy I have used is to call the person before 8:00 a.m. or after 5:00 p.m.  In this way the gatekeepers generally have either not arrived at work or have left for the day.
  • The second strategy is to ask for “John” and tell the gatekeeper “Rich is on the line. He is expecting my call.” In fact, if you have written John a letter of introduction and mentioned that you would call him up, that statement is true.
  • The third strategy requires even more chutzpah, but hey, what do you have to lose? When calling up the foundation and the gatekeeper answers the phone mention that this call is confidential and you want to talk with “Sarah”. You might have to apologize a bit for using this strategy, but the program offices might understand your frustration getting through to them.

I’ve never understood why some foundations make it so difficult. After all, a short conversation can let a grantseeker know when there’s no point in submitting a proposal, saving the program officer the work of reading and rejecting countless requests. And even though a good grantwriter will carefully study the guidelines, a brief discussion is key to focusing in on the issues that really light up the program staff and trustees. Good program officers will tell you about recent changes in their funding trends, and specific issues of interest that you’d never guess from just reading the guidelines.

There are still some foundations that welcome phone calls to discuss your proposal. Never, ever send in a cold proposal when there’s the opportunity to send in a warm – or even a hot one!

Good luck!


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